Education is the problem: Re-educating the educator and unlearning racism
By Saladdin Ahmed
June 9, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Children are born into a world in which racism has been naturalized for a long time. As they grow up, they are taught everything within frames of reference and regimes of truth according to which the perception of the natural, the normal, the rational, the real, and the good is predetermined. The lenses through which the world is conceived are invisible to most parents and educators, let alone to those who are being raised, taught, disciplined, trained, ranked, and equipped for more ranking before they join the social and institutional machines of reproduction. Through this process, there will be nothing, including dreams, left without being subjected to some sort of management. Those who are subjugated to this prolonged process of management will be rewarded along the way according to their ability to manage (both themselves and others), albeit each within their respective settings. Thus, for the well managed/educated and those they successfully manage/educate, the reality that is produced and reproduced, perceived and rationalized, will also be just that, the reality, in the metaphysical sense of the word. That is to say, the perceived, the real, the rational, the natural, and the truth will mean the same thing. Speech itself becomes a hermeneutical graveyard. Imagination becomes nothing more than the vulgar opposite of the vulgarly perceived reality; it becomes part of the entertainment industry, fiction in the literal sense and vulgarity in the literary sense. Any non-vulgar imagination that does not conform to the existing reality and is not fiction is guillotined by bourgeois nihilists who strive for the total annihilation of resistance in all its forms and shapes.
The educational regime stretches from the institutions of family and religion all the way to the institutions of higher learning and recruitment. On the microlevels of everydayness, the racist molding of the mode of perception is conducted semiologically. Language as the largest social institution already carries all the essential ideological entities for maintaining racism. This is why even after uprooting class exploitation and material inequality, racism (and other ideological forms, such as fascism, that have characterized the dominant mode of perception under capitalism) will persist for generations before they are rendered obsolete by the formation of the emancipated mode of perception.
In all the historical stages on the path to universal emancipation, only negative education, learning via unlearning, can be emancipatory; otherwise, education is always at the heart of the production of false consciousness and a reality that is true only in terms of the oppressive power that sustains it. The existing reality is true only insofar as it is a product of unfreedom and a production of material inequality, and it is false insofar as it suppresses the condition for human potentiality, freedom. Philosophically, freedom is definitive of the human truth, of subjecthood. Because the existing reality is produced through the suppression of freedom, including the marginalized majority’s freedom, it is necessarily a falsely maintained type of truth, a truth that is caused by falsehood and results in more falsehood.
Thanks to the dominant norms that have normalized domination societally, the more rigorous the positive education, the more solid the naturalization of prejudices, the deeper the learning process, the stronger the cementing of the racist lenses in the child’s cognitive system. The socially inherited mode of cognition will normally be racist, and the conception of nature itself in this mode of cognition will be racist. Conceptualizing the ingredients of everydayness, experiencing social interactions, crystalizing personal ideas, and forming individual thoughts will also be racist.
Because the normal state of the world is a state of racism, and because the normal ethos and episteme are racist, a non-negative pedagogy merely perpetuates racism. Racism is made undetectable precisely because it has been naturalized, and it has been naturalized precisely because it has been essential for perpetuating social inequality. Educators obtained their status as educators in a world in which most ideological forms of racism and racist practices are undetectable through any of the means of sensory perception, incognizable through the normal cognitive systems, and incommunicable through the established semantics.
Despite groundbreaking projects that have been aiming to deconstruct discursive practices and construct new theories for analysis, the pro-establishment educator, whatever he may call himself in terms of political orientation, simply fails to grasp that at the heart of his pedagogy there is a myth, a lethal myth, completely dissolved in the very colorless medium through which he perceives the world. Then, not surprisingly, he denies racism. Racism, the silenced are told, is at best a psychological problem from which they, the silenced, suffer, and at worst, it is a made-up story, a card, used for culturally canceling those accused of committing racist discrimination. Ultimately, in an absurd yet typical twist of the logic, we are told that it is the minority member who cannot move beyond the issue of race and is, therefore, racist. Indeed, the only reason the privileged might be accused of racism is that the accusers themselves are racist
The color-blind educator is certain that he is not racist, and he is not prepared to question that certainty, subjectively rendering any process of unlearning racism completely unfeasible. He adores diversity, but he is certain that his own morality is universally unquestionable. He strongly believes that skin color does not matter, but he is certain that it is only because of his skin color that his truth claims are questioned. He is annoyed by those who bring up the issue of race even though he does exactly that, namely, he believes it is because of his skin color that his integrity or his authority is questioned. If the color-blind educator were minimally capable of deploying basic logic, he would easily realize that he is guilty of racism twice, once for the deed itself and once for using race to defend it. Finally, to fend off any charges against him and rule out any possibility of doubting, he often reminds himself and his listeners that he has a black friend, a brown relative, a yellow neighbor, or a red ancestor. At any rate, racially defending racism is rational within the prevalent irrationality of the existing order.
The denialist seems to genuinely believe that he wants to criticize everything under the sun, except he misses a fundamental spot: the self. The self, however, is the processing box through which everything under the sun and the sun itself are conceived and perceived to be cognized and formed as knowledge. That is to say, his own modes of signification and interpretation had been produced through a meticulously managed process. He represents what debilitates negative thought and, thus, what suppresses the possibility of a liberating form of education.
A pro-establishment, positive, educator stands for what necessitates critique, as opposed to what enables critique. He is the object, not the subject, of critique, in the philosophical sense of the word. However, thanks to his sense of entitlement, which often comes with unproblematized social privilege, and thanks to the social regime of power relations, which systematically rewards its loyal agents, the educator has disabled his intellectual ability for self-doubt. He is, therefore, hopelessly ignorant of his ignorance, and disturbingly confident about his possession of knowledge, as well as critical and autonomous thought. Like some rich schmucks whose wealth is the cause of their misery, what intensifies this educator’s case of banality is his titles, degrees, and certificates.
This is one rare occasion where a proverb might actually help to make the point: “an ass is an ass even if he is loaded with gold!” (a Kurdish saying). In some traditions, donkeys, of course, unfairly, symbolize stupidity. What if we raise the following question: is not a donkey necessarily wiser than a man who so strongly believes in his own wisdom that in the name of critique, he reproduces unthinking, and in the name of freedom of speech, he suppresses his own freedom of thought?
Today, everyone talks about critical and autonomous thinking. So much so that even the adjective “critical” has become conventional if not worse. Even flat-earthers and climate-deniers claim critical thinking. Even Americans who defend the “right to bear arms” amendment at the expense of the right to life claim that they think for themselves – what makes the irony even more absurd is that many of these alleged freedom-believers do claim to be “pro-life,” when the term means depriving a woman of her right to her own body. Even Holocaust deniers and other Nazi sympathizers today present themselves as defenders of freedom of speech, critical thinking, etc. These supposed freethinkers miss two basic logical points: 1. there must be thinking first before there can be a critical thought, and 2. it is one’s exercise of free thought that makes the right to free speech so important. These may sound too much like stating facts, but that is the point. Facts such as these need to be stated in multiple ways in the hope that they will not be contradicted so frequently by those who in the name of freedom and enlightenment have never stopped trying to make the world more unfree and absurd. But let us be clear, no amount of reasoning will end social inequality or the unthinking and unfreedom that come with social inequality. Nonetheless, within the revolutionary praxis, negative thought and negative education will remain necessary.
If somehow a voice from the subaltern makes it to the bourgeois public sphere, the loyal agents of the ruling order cries victimhood. Under all suppressive systems, whether old-style fascist regimes or the more effective totalitarian systems, every true voice of critical thought is immediately denoted as a threat to be neutralized, one way or another. Also, all oppressive social and political regimes have loyalists whose reaction to true critique carries signs of a thug personality, whereas those who are better trained and have gone to more prestigious schools maintain the facade of tolerance and the performance of kindness as they put a suitable process of neutralization in motion without causing any unnecessary public drama.
If there is one thing we should realize about any regime of social oppression, it is that the moment the marginalized speak up, the normalcy of domination is disturbed. Those who voluntarily and unknowingly serve as the moral police for the ruling groups rush to action. Consequently, every effective attempt by the marginalized to assert equality or demand freedom is confronted with immediate delegitimization, criminalization, demonization, or whatever proves efficient for a speedy recovery of the dominant state of affairs.
It is time for us to turn the table around and shamelessly declare that equality is not good enough for those who have been marginalized historically; we should not let the long history of oppression go as if it had never happened. Moreover, the oppressed are, indeed, epistemologically far superior to the oppressors. We all would do ourselves a great favor if we learn from the experiences of the oppressed and their emancipatory philosophies. By the same token, we would do ourselves, as human individuals endowed with faculties of understanding, great disfavor if we follow the value systems normalized by the ruling groups and adhere to their regime of objectivity-industry, at the heart of which there is positivist and idealist education. The ideological apparatuses of this totalitarian order prioritize the principle of hegemony, as opposed to physical control. By doing so these apparatuses operate as ideological industries capable of recycling all kinds of ideas, doctrines, and phraseologies. Thanks to this industry, today, even philosophers of revolution from Karl Marx to Frantz Fanon and critical theorists from Walter Benjamin to Paolo Freire are carefully gentrified and used in the hegemonic education and the education of hegemony. Today’s volunteers of totalitarianism may dress like hipsters, speak the fashionable (yet de-politicized) language of diversity, and cover their stuff with heartening pins and stickers, but they nonetheless represent the contemporary version of the SS who make sure the public sphere is fully under control.
While the culture industry takes care of the process of commodification of art created by the marginalized, such as African American music, the education system conducts a similar process to gentrify and commodify revolutionary intellectual projects created by the marginalized.
The only hope for liberation, of not only the oppressed but even more so of the socially privileged, is learning through unlearning. There are layers of solidified untruths, prejudices, and falsehoods that will take nothing less than a revolutionary project of negation for unlearning and undoing them.
Today, students’ courage to learn through unlearning is impressive. The trouble, however, is the same one Marx pointed out, namely, educating the educators, which necessitates un-educating and re-educating them. No doubt some educators from various backgrounds of relative privilege, as well as some others who come from underprivileged backgrounds, undertake such a self-liberating journey, effectively contributing to critical epistemologies. However, there are also many other educators who have hopelessly drowned their chances for epistemological emancipation in “the self,” drastically limiting their scope of objectivity. Their social environments coupled with their lack of interest in emancipation through standing with the oppressed and learning from negative projects of revolutionary resistance result in a form of subjectivity that collapses inwardly under the weight of its own banality, minimizing the range of perception in relation to the objective world out there. That is to say, if not emancipated, the privileged self becomes phenomenologically, saturates itself in such a conventional medium the intellect ends up in a prolonged state of numbness, disabling its capacity for imagination.
What on earth could convince a man who is in full denial of racism that he needs to unlearn centuries of solidified falsehood and tons of false self-confidence? This man, who feels he is loaded with intellectual gold, today rules universities everywhere. This reality must be changed drastically.
Democratic platforms should be established to serve as media for the voices of those who face racism on daily bases. Racism is systematic, but it is always experienced on the loneliest levels. Speeches and ads on diversity, if anything, only further alienate the college student who is subjected to symbolic and direct forms of othering on a daily basis. Laws, regulations, committees, and fancy titles about inclusivity do not mean anything for the college student who is pushed into a world of isolation at the hands of an instructor naturally supported by social institutions and authorities with hundreds of years of both material and symbolic capital.
An international alliance for antiracism should be formed by those who are prepared to stand with the silenced. If one is not underprivileged in terms of race relations in one’s own social and geographical context, then one should feel even more obliged to enter such an alliance to continue to unlearn, de-normalize, and resist racism.
Saladdin Ahmed is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura (SUNY 2019) and Revolutionary Hope after Nihilism: Marginalized Voices and Dissent (Bloomsbury 2022). He has published widely in international peer-reviewed journals and media outlets on topics related to social and political philosophy, social movements, and minorities. Currently, He teaches political science at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Ottawa.
 The use of the pronoun is intentional to imply the fact that the dominant ideology, whether represented by men or women, is fundamentally centered around male domination.
 The alleged black friend is perhaps the most common one as a terrific object of exploitation, a license for anti-black racist behavior. Almost every apology on racism includes a few statements about a nameless black friend even though it hardly takes any reflection to realize that, if anything, having a black acquaintance makes the anti-black racist insensitivity even less justifiable.